Category Archives: life, the universe and everything else

Cose che mi vengono in mente e non stanno bene in nessuna categoria, ma in qualche modo c’entrano

Home, again

In 2019, I completed the process of acquiring Belgian nationality. I had started it the year before, in recognition of the fact that it looks like I am going to stay in my beloved Brussels for the long haul, and in an effort to insulate myself from any bad Brexit-like idea Italian politicians might have. It was no big deal: a bit of bureaucracy, a couple of hundred euro, and the Belgian administrative machine was in motion.

The months passed. And then a few weeks ago, I received a surprise invitation from the mayor of Forest (one of the 19 Brussels communes, the one where I live). He was delighted that some of its foreign residents – myself included – had recently acquired the Belgian nationality. Would I go out to the city hall for a moment of conviviality with him and his colleagues? I RVSP’ed sure, what a nice idea. And tonight, I went.

I was expecting a formality. A short and generic speech from some mayoral underling, followed by some kind of refreshment. I was wrong.

The whole political level of the city government was there. The mayor, and six of the nine échevins, in all their multi-ethnic glory. Nobody was in a rush. They went out of their way to explain that the city hall’s employees, and they personally, were there for the citizens, and that all doors were always open. When a lady reported problems with finding affordable housing, they all stepped up, explaining what each one’s office could do to attack her problem. Local government, at its best.

But it was the humanity of it all that stroke me the most. They seemed genuinely interested in talking to each one of us individually, and delighted that we had chosen Forest as our (permanent, given we had applied for citizenship) home. They even seemed to like us.

People liked them right back. Several new Belgians stood up to acknowledge the quality and humanity of the services they had received, as foreigners first, as Belgians now. One lady beaming, announced that she used to work black, but now her citizen status opens new opportunities. Everyone laughed, and the mayor smiled and said he was sorry she had to do that, and happy that now she was in the clear.

It turned out that Forest has 56,000 inhabitants representing 144 nationalities. In 2019 alone, about 500 residents, like me, acquired the Belgian nationality. These are incredible numbers, that expose the lies about the “migration emergency”, the “invasion”. Over half of Brussels residents were not born Belgian (source). And yet here we are, with our mayor welcoming us to the large, colorful, slightly shady Brussels family (yes, shady, since our cultural heroes are people like these – and proud of it!).

Way to go, my fellow Belgians. No, this country is not perfect. It can be quite dysfunctional. But these things are fixable. What matters most to me, is the ironic, tender humanity you so often manage to infuse in life here. If this is Belgium, I am happy to have chosen to make my home here, and proud to be one of you.

Terrour with fright" from le Brun,. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Reconciliation in the Internet age

My native country, Italy, is currently going through a crisis related to a ship called Sea-Watch-3. Owned by a German NGO, it rescued 42 migrants from the Mediterranean; was denied authorization to dock in the Italian island of Lampedusa; but docked anyway on humanitarian grounds. Its captain was arrested. As I write, it is unclear how it will end (here is the Guardian). Whatever happens next, I fear it will affect not just its protagonists (the 42 migrants, the captain, the Italian authorities and the latter’s political leaders), but all Italians. Those effects will be strongly negative. They could even disintegrate Italy’s sentiment of national unity.

Let me explain. Italians are human beings, and like all humans prone to overheating during discussions. To overstep the limits of civility, and cross from discussion into fighting. That’s normal. Just step into an Italian café on a Monday, and watch people discuss the Sunday’s football matches. It is very common to overhear people accuse each other of “stealing a victory”, or even “buying off the referee”. Of course, the actual people in those discussion were not even within a hundred kilometer radius from the stadium. Their accusers know this well, but they associate the opposite team’s supporters to the alleged wrongdoings of the team’s players or management. Humans are good at factionalism: pitting “you” against “us”, according to biologists, is innate in homo sapiens.

Something similar happens in the Sea-Watch 3 discussion. Many limits of civility and courtesy have been overstepped. I hope I am wrong, but I see the country resolving into two opposite factions of supporters. The stadium where the actual match is being fought is near-empty, but Italy’s bars are full of people shouting not only at the players, but at each other. I am reading heavy, heavy words: “kill them”, “sink them”, “inhuman” and so on.

Unfortunately, I predict the echo of these words will be with us for a long time. This has something to do with the Internet.

On the one hand, the Internet provides us with an archive of everything we share: the joy and the anger, the measured arguments and the insults and venting. It never forgets. If you, today, use the Net to demand that the navy sinks a ship full of unfortunate people, or to call minister X or representative Y a Nazi, you leave a digital trace that will not go away easily, or at all. Even if you repent, that post, or that tweet, will hang from your neck like the albatross from the neck of Coleridge’s Old Mariner.

On the other hand, social media tend to push us into “consensus bubbles” where most people are close to our own position. According to Zeynep Tufekci, these bubbles are not static, but carry us towards more and more extreme positions with time and the consumption of social media.

Together, these two effects create a situation where our most extreme positions become a cage that we can no longer break free of. If we change our minds, we know that someone will always be able to rub them in our face. And, once we express them, we find ourselves part of a bubble that rewards us for taking them: admires us, respects us as someone who is not afraid to “tell it like it is”. In this situation, it is hard to change your opinion.

Conclusions. In the age of social media, when a faultline forms in a community it tends to grow wider, crystallize, become irreversible. Forgiveness and reconciliation become harder. This is my reading of what happened in the UK: in 2015, the words “Leaver” and “Remainer” did not exist. In 2016 they were shorthand for “someone who votes Leave/Remain in the EU referendum”. In 2019 they are identities: go to any dating website, it’s full of people saying “I could never date a Leaver/Remainer”. Now, these identities are completely artificial, but the combined effect of unerasable records and consensus bubbles makes them effective anyway. I fear that, with Sea-Watch 3, we Italians have found our own faultline, our own Brexit.

In the short run, as the British example shows, it is likely that we will get mired into a continuous conflict that will cripple our ability to develop the country. After the referendum, the British government has done practically no new policy, not even around leaving the EU. And in the long run? No one knows. I fear that a deeply divided national community is unviable.

So what next? My opinion does not matter. If it did, I would use it to ask my countrymen to be compassionate, not (only) with the migrants on the Sea-Watch 3, but with each other. A person can, in a moment of frustration, get carried away and say something horrible without being a horrible person. The “enemy” that torments us on Twitter is just another human being, with a family, a car insurance to pay, maybe a dog. A couple of layers beneath his offensive language there might be arguments worth discussing.

No one has a monopoly on Italian-ness. But I like to remember this: after the fall of the fascist regime and the end of World War II, Italy gave itself a national unity government. Its minister if justice was communist leader Palmiro Togliatti, himself exiled during fascism. His most significant policy was a general amnesty. rolled out as an emergency measure, before Italy even had a constitution or a parliament. Wikipedia notes:

it pardoned and reduced sentences for Italian Fascists and Partisans alike. The amnesty included common crimes as well as political ones committed during World War II. In practice however, Fascists and collaborators benefited far more from the amnesty than Partisans did.

This move had far-reaching implications. Those who had been complicit in involving Italy in a war, and collaborated with an invading force, got home free, just like those who had fought against these choices. Fair? No. And indeed, Togliatti paid a high price to the backlash, also within his own party. But the government, and Togliatti himself, decided that reconciliation and mutual forgiveness were the only path towards a reasonably cohesive, stable nation. Conflict happens, but to move forward together reconciliation is necessary. Italy is a republic based on that reconciliation, and I do not think it has a future if we we won’t be able to reverse this trend towards entrenched positions and mutual, public insult. I hope we realize this, before it is too late.

Image: Terrour with fright” from le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The globalist. A route for the 21st century

I have the honor of having been invited to teach (if that’s the right word) at this year’s Salzburg Global Seminar.

This turns out to have been founded in 1947 by Clemens Heller, a Harvard student native of Salzburg, together with two American colleagues. The idea was to

create at least one small center in which young Europeans from all countries, and of all political convictions, could meet for a month in concrete work under favorable living conditions, and to lay the foundation for a possible permanent center of intellectual discussion in Europe.

This discussion was urgent. Europe lay in ruins. Austria itself, like Germany, was occupied by the Allied troops, and dismembered into four zones: the American, British, French and Soviet Zone. It was not at all clear what path Europe would take. Recent history showed that World Wars could and did ride on each other’s wake – only twenty years of increasingly tense “peace” had separated World War I from World War II. It was becoming clear that Western and Central Europeans were no longer the masters of their own destiny. The Soviet Union and the United States both wanted to shape Europe’s future. Europeans, demoralized and exhausted, could hardly stop them.

But there was one thing they could do. They could use whatever little space was afforded by the competition between the two superpowers to pull together, forge a common vision for the Old Continent, and build the capacity to implement it. This was the Salzburg Seminar’s mission: “a Marshall Plan of the mind”, the ability to imagine a different future as a critical element of recovery. This plan was targeted at young people, with the potential to become leaders in postwar Europe and America.

The mission succeeded. Intellectual stimuli were off the scale: Margaret Mead and Wassily Leontief were among the teachers of the 1947 seminar. Over the decades, as Europe grew more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous, the Seminar shifted from a Euro-American focus to a global one. It is now one of several world-class leadership programs.

We find ourselves at a juncture where places like the Salzburg Global Seminar might look like yesterday’s news. We are informed that nationalism, nativism, exceptionalism, de-humanising of political adversaries, even racism – all concepts that Clemens Heller might have thought buried in the rubble of Third Reich – are back. We are told the “perceptions” of our fellow citizens are as important, and as capable of shaping our world, than the facts of science. The narrative of supremacy by bloodright is powerful (padroni a casa nostra, “lords of our own house”, is the slogan of Italian xenophobic party Lega Nord. It is nonsensical in so many ways that I don’t want to even start breaking it down, but it does work). And a scapegoat is always handy in politics. So, this is the new normal, or at least part of it.

I will not stand for this. It is, simply, nonsense. We have huge problems to solve: safeguard the global environment before the Anthropocene wipes out the last tigers and blackens the coral reefs. Rejuvenate our democracies. Build decent capacity in government (don’t get me started). Steer global population down towards a long-term sustainable level. Figure out a way to live in a world with no “jobs”, and engineer a symbiosis with AIs. Preserve, extend and cherish the glorious tapestry of Earth’s cultures.

The task at hand is enormous. We need everyone, every last person who wants to be a full participant and accepts to contribute to humanity’s adventure on this blue planet, our home.  People, almost all of them, are willing to step in as full participants, and work, and love, and learn from each other. So, with the obvious individual exceptions, I want nation states, border guards, police, clergy, TV anchormen and any bloody idiot that thinks they can make them feel unwelcome to stay out of their way. Inclusion, abolition of borders, freedom of trade and movement are better for everyone. You’d think Europeans, of all people, would know this. Clemens Heller did.

And so do I. I am a globalist. I want to build webs of friendship and love and business partnerships, and I want these webs to span the globe. I want to build global knowledge, to spread far and wide. This is our birthright as humans: contribute to the future of the species, and the planet it inhabits. It is a global goal, and needs a global scope. I vow to oppose any political movement that seeks to prevent well-intentioned people from everywhere to work together towards this goal.

In Europe, this means supporting more, deeper, more irreversible integration; and welcome any transfer of sovereignty from States to the European Union, as long as it can be shown to be beneficial to European citizens, especially the least privileged. It also means supporting welcoming new members into the Union. I vow to do those things, too.

Today, the Salzburg Global Seminar is right where I want to be.